Credit: Katharina Lüdin
by Frank Falisi Featured Film

Of Living Without Illusion — Katharina Lüdin [NF/ND ’24 Review]

April 11, 2024

A long take is a relationship. It looks still and it contains and collides all its insides. Details from earlier — in the film, from the past — emerge in the stretch of the present space, less a sensation of tension than an accumulation. Connection becomes as likely as violence. Mostly, there is time to occupy a position and consider its impact. There is room to act or not. In Katharina Lüdin’s debut feature, Of Living Without Illusion, the long take becomes a standardized unit for thinking and rethinking the long relationship between two women, between the actor Merit (Jenny Schily) and the acted-on Eva (Anna Bolk). In composing her story almost strictly through such takes and by de-emphasizing filmic grammar usually deployed in stories about resolving relationships — camera movement, closeups, shot/reverse-shot — Lüdin has crafted a film at odds with the narrow and commodifiable language often attached to stories of our coupling. Critically and with a clear focus on her own patient tempo of occurrences and articulate blocking of bodies, Lüdin provides an alternative model for scrutinizing desire.

Of Living Without Illusion is the story of a breakup slowed by the gauze of suburban humidity, a fantasy of domestic partnership curdled into codependency. Merit rehearses a play with her ex-husband (Godehard Giese) and collaborates on a half-conscious, half-committed breakup with Eva, though none of these relationships are immediately obvious, as one effect of Lüdin and cinematographer Katharina Schelling’s insistence on stationary camera setups and long takes is the depriving of the spectator’s easy narrative assembly. Instead of framing characters in relation to the central breakup narrative, Of Living Without Illusion simply sets them to walk or recline through open cinematic space. The ensuing ensemble — Merit’s grown-up and growingly alienated son; his own romantic partner, a costume design intern at odds with her own self-investigation and tellingly the sole woman of color in the film; an unmoored younger daughter who may or may not be Merit and Eva’s child; a panoply of theater associates and artist-adjacents — must (usually literally) step around the schisming couple, their narrative meaning sometimes more a result of changing the film’s pH than its plot. From the perspective of pure craft, this tendency means that characters constantly come too close to the camera, only to walk beyond its limits. There is an attention here to the blocking of bodies that is increasingly welcome when considered against a popular cinema given to flighty weightlessness. Here is the great lesson from the theater: movement creates feeling. Distance is maintained, but so is presence. The frame holds the bodies, even if we wish it would move, or switch, or allow them to leave.

Merit and Eva are a couple in the last throes of their coupling, having reached the terminal stage of both admitting their own end and unwilling for each other to actually leave. Their presence together in frame takes on a gravitational force that pulls and pushes them together in spurts of intimacy — an intrusion of skin-kissed tussling in grass over a melty ice cream bar gives the spectator a pausing ache: this is the feeling at stake in this story — and shocks of violence. Late in the film, Eva confesses a moment of past traumatic physical violence inflicted by Merit that is both shocking in its direct consideration and unsurprising given the volatile romantic see-sawing of the central couple. There are lines that hold us together and there are lines that hold us: “She confines me, and I notice how it hurts her, but what can I do? She has become such a stranger.”

More than any recent European film, it’s tempting to lay Of Living Without Illusion against Ira Sachs’ similarly liberated Passages. How to describe either film, other than by saying, “this is how a breakup moves”? Where Passages’ sweaty, borderline campy outfitting of its breakup story is designed to provide as much pleasure as pain, Lüdin’s film exacts pain flecked with great and grave beauty: it is a joy to watch Schilly and Bolk sink their bodies into this story of rich collision, a pleasure to watch a sexy and strained film about queer women in their mid-50s, a privilege to watch such thoughtful 16mm grain. By avoiding formal and plot clichés that tip cinema toward resolution, Of Living Without Illusion indicates both the limits of filmic language to render the specific gravity of a breakup as well as the possibilities of showing life under that gravity in-frame. A feeling like “hope” can be pronounced as “despair” based on a change in the blocking. “It’s not about the backstory,” Merit says, “it’s just about this little moment that I witnessed. Just this moment. How someone simply is but cannot be.” These words are never conceived of as gospel, and they shouldn’t be assigned to the film’s authors as anything other than a provocative half-truth worth saying, sitting with, and then cutting away from. We have a relationship with a film. And then we watch another one.

Published as part of New Directors/New Films 2024.